A Tale of Two Schalmei – What is a Schalmei?

In our Saturday German School we sang the same verse over and over, overlapping in far from perfect harmony, while our teacher jumped back and forth across the front of the classroom pointing to groups when it was their time to join in the round. “Es tönen die Lieder…”

Es tönen die Lieder
Der Frühling kehrt wieder
Es spielet der Hirte
Auf seiner Schalmei
La la la la la la la
La la la la la la la

And I loved singing, loudly, of course to disturb the other classes, and I loved watching our teacher bounce from one end of the class to the other. But, I never figured out one thing… WHAT is a Schalmei??

What IS a Schalmei?

Well, it turns out, there are TWO different instruments called Schalmei, and both play a part in Germany’s history. One goes back to the Crusades, and the other was seen mostly in the DDR.

The Early Schalmei

This Schalmei looks the Recorder that your kid brings home from school (and I imagine it sounds similar). Basically, you blow into the top, and it makes music. Notes change when the airholes are covered. The medieval Schalmei, belongs to the Shawm family, so it’s related to today’s Oboe. A long body with a bell at the bottom, finger holes to make notes, and importantly, a double reed at the top. (Double reed means that the musician blows through two pieces of wood or reed to create a vibration. A clarinet or saxophone are single reed instruments). Naturally, different sizes of Schalmei produce different tones, and in Medieval bands, two players worked together to produce harmony.


Michael Praetorius, scanned by Matthias.Gruber at de.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Schalmei that our Hirte (shepherd) plays in the fields, most likely came to Germany from the Middle East where it was called Salamiya. Apparently, the instrument produced such a harsh sound, that the Arab armies used it for psychological warfare. European Crusaders (in the 11th-13th centuries) saw the benefits of blasting enemies with a horrible screeching sound, so they brought the instrument home with them… (again, like the Recorder your child brings home from school).

When Crusaders brought the instrument home, THEY planned to use it in battle (much like the Scottish bagpipes), but over time, adjustments were made, and the Schalmei became an instrument for the popular dance music of the time. (Can you see it… Teens in the Middle Ages playing the Schalmei at their dances, and parents yelling “TURN IT DOWN!” Some things never change). The Schalmei players, or Stadtpfeiffer (town pipers)  generally performed outdoors at wedding ceremonies or to herald official visits. Usually they played in pairs as part of the town band. Or solo,  if you are a shepherd, you play it for your sheep to herald the coming of spring….

Herderstafereel met een schalmeispeler Rijksmuseum SK-A-1494Jan Baptist Wolfaerts 1646, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 
Es Tönen die Lieder, the sweet song about a shepherd greeting spring with his Schalmei, dates to the mid-1800s, around the beginnings of the German Romantic movement, and most likely got passed along as an oral tradition before it was written down in 1853, when gymnastics teacher Adolf Spieß used it in a performance combining singing, gymnastics and dance. The “three part canon” sung in rounds later appeared in many German songbooks, and became a popular school song.
Hear it sung as a round-

The OTHER Schalmei

Inventor Max Martin created this multi-horn instrument in 1905. (Fun fact- Martin also created the sound used by emergency vehicles in Germany). There doesn’t seem to be a clear explanation as to WHY he named it the Schalmei… and it’s also called the Martins Trompete (Martin’s Trumpet). While it LOOKS like a trumpet, this Schalmei is more closely related to a Harmonica. (What?) Like a harmonica, each horn plays a different tone, and the sound is created by a free swinging brass reed (see Musikmuseum/schalmei). So, you blow into it, like a harmonica, and where you blow changes the sound. Different Schalmei have more or less horns to create different tones, and buttons help control which horn gets the air. To clarify, in a regular brass instrument, the buttons control how much air, which changes the sound. In a Schalmei, it’s all or nothing. Because each horn can only play one note, there isn’t a lot of nuance… and because you can’t control the volume, this is another instrument best played outdoors.

Schalmei Martinstrompete 1
Photo: Andreas Praefcke, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Fun story, when Martin first created the instrument, he presented it to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who totally misunderstood that it was for music, he attached it to his car as a horn. (I’m not sure if he blew into it, or if he had an assistant for that). He also declared the instrument an “Imperial Privilege”, meaning it could only be played at special events. As a result, the instrument was slow to take off… Still, the first Schalmei band formed in 1913.

The Schalmei’s popularity took off in the 1920s when unemployed war veterans in the Ruhr used them to perform their socialist songs. Makes sense, the instrument was easy to learn, and certainly loud enough to attract attention. Schalmei bands became common fixtures at Turnvereine (Gymnastics Halls) and at Communist Party Meetings. In 1933, the unimpressed National Socialist Party banned the Schalmei, and the instrument disappeared for a while.

In the 1950s, these leftist roots led to  a resurgence of the Schalmei in East Germany. The instrument became a sort of symbol for the DDR. Schalmei bands formed, especially relating to workplaces (like on railroads).

A famous incident in East/ West diplomacy involved a leather jacket and a Schalmei. Rocker Udo Lindenberg really wanted to perform in the DDR, and it almost happened in the 1970s, but when NATO put missiles on the border, feelings changed. Naturally he wrote a few anti-war songs, and a few songs pointed at the East, and then Lindenberg was barred. In 1983 Lindenberg sent Erich Honecker (leader of East Germany from 1971 to 1989) a special request to perform, and with the letter, he sent a leather jacket. Honecker replied…”it fits” (meaning both the jacket, and Lindenberg’s pro-peace sentiments)… as a gift for Lindenberg, he included a Schalmei. (Honecker’s father played the instrument in a socialist Schalmei group in the 1920s).

Here’s Udo with the famous Honecker Schalmei, now in a Museum

Today, the Martins Trompete/ Schalmei still has its fans! Because it’s easy and fun.
Hear it played- (The Schalmeienorchester Tettau/Frauendorf e.V. make it seem like a LOT of fun! They rock Mama Mia, Don’t stop Believen’, and even The Kirmes Polka)


The Tale of Two Schalmei

The Schalmei… two instruments with so much history. One a school song, the other an important chapter in East/West diplomacy.



Es tönen die Lieder


Geschichte der Schalmei– Schalmeien Illumensee

Musik Museem- Schalmei

Sackpfeyffer zu Linden – Schawm 

Udo Lindenbergs Lederjacke Geschichte NDR

Udo Lindenberg A Nightmare for East German Authorities DW


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